By Matt Youngfrau
MONTICELLO May 6, 2003 Two major issues for the Sullivan County Legislature these days are potential casino problems and the state of the budget. Both of these subjects were discussed at the Legislatures Executive Committee meeting on Thursday, May 1.
Legislature Chair Leni Binder talked about the casino issue first. Binder announced a committee would be formed to look at the impacts casinos will cause and how to mitigate them.
According to Binder, since there are no approvals from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) or compacts reached with New York State Governor George Pataki, there need be no rush to form the committee.
There is no clock ticking, Binder stated. The committee will meet with the various groups that will be affected. They all have to be spoken to. However, that does not mean they have to be on the committee they will be spoken to. There is no rush.
Then, attention was focused on the budget. On April 30, Sullivan County Treasurer Olga Parlow filed the Annual Financial Report. Those numbers have yet to be audited. Binder turned the meeting over to Financial Management Committee Chair Greg Goldstein and Sullivan County Financial Management Administration Commissioner Richard LaCondre.
It is time to see where we are going, Goldstein said. We will see what the numbers mean. Hopefully, this will stop all the rumors on what we have or dont have.
LaCondre reviewed the statement released by Parlow. As of December 31, 2002, the fund balance was $41,545,132. However, only $14.4 million of that would be available for the county to use. The rest has been earmarked to address future issues like this years contract negotiations with seven different bargaining units, the fund established to close and monitor the Sullivan County Landfill, and the StopDWI campaign.
Our expenditures grow every year, LaCondre explained. We need the revenue to keep pace. If we do not have enough, we will be forced to raise taxes. Our option is to raise revenue and cut expenses.
To that end, LaCondre and County Manager Dan Briggs asked all department heads and commissioners to cut their 2003 budgets by 5 percent. That number was based on what the New York State budget was proposed to be. With the State Legislature restoring some of the budgets funds, the cuts are expected to be less than that.
LaCondre continued to spell out the impacts.
We will need $3.4 million because of the increase in pension funds, LaCondre said. In 2003, it will cost $4.4 million. We had been paying $1.1 million. All of the counties have been affected. We are looking for the comptroller to set a limit.
LaCondre stated that the pension fund had always been through investments. With the tough times the market has faced, the fund lost a substantial amount of money.
Other increased expenses include health insurance (about $1.5 million) and LaCondre indicated the Legislature has not been putting enough money aside for the landfill closure.
In all, the budget will grow by $8.1 million. The county will use $10.3 million from the fund balance to balance the budget.
We do not have enough, remarked LaCondre. This would mean a 13 percent tax increase. We have to cut expenses. We are facing a $4 million deficit. All department heads and commissioners submitted their impact statements. I am going through them. It looks like we can only cut another $1.7 million. Im not sure we can do it.
The floor was then opened to the legislators. One concern was the possible loss of state aid and having to eliminate some programs. Other discussions included closing a county facility and ending some programs. Lawmakers were quick to point out talks were ongoing, no decisions were made, and they would try to avoid such drastic moves.
This has to be based on priority, noted District 1 Legislator Chris Cunningham. It will depend on what we want to spend. We have to start with the expenses.
We are dealing with expense-driven budgets, LaCondre responded. It will depend how much is mandated.
Everything is up in the air, commented District 5 Legislator Rodney Gaebel. The 5 percent cut is a guesstimate. We do not want anyone to send up red flags.
We are going from a mid-size car to a compact, Legislature Leni Binder said, referring to the budget cuts. There has been a lot of misinterpretation. Now we have to be creative.
This saddens me, remarked District 6 Legislator Jodi Goodman. We are handcuffed. There is little room to move. It is tough.
LaCondre stated that only 4 out of 57 counties at a recent conference he attended said they did not raise property taxes this year. He stated they were thusly in fairly good shape.
Goldstein added that they would ask the department heads and commissioners to come up with some revenue-generating ideas.
There is room for creativity, LaCondre stated. It can be as bare bones as you want it to be. We have a lot of work to catch up [to previous funding levels].
This has not been done behind closed doors, concluded Goldstein. It is a big issue. We are in decent shape. We have to move ahead. To do that, all nine of us [legislators] need to work together.